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Harp Seals, Iles de la Madeleine, Canada

A visit to the breeding grounds of the Pagophilus groenlandicus, Harp seals close to the Magdalen Islands in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is a cold but enchanting experience.

We boarded a vessel: the ‘Manon-Yvon’, an icebreaker, and went out to the breeding grounds where the boat stayed for 3 days. Every day we could walk the ice floes and let the harp seals get used to our presence. The wind can be very harsh but once the pups look you in the eye, you forget the cold.

To be on the ice close to the pups while the mothers swim under the ice and take a look through their blowholes makes you very humble. I do not think you can get any closer to nature. Lying flat on your belly in floating suits in the cold for hours a day makes you feel alive. That the images can contribute to a better understanding of the lifecycle of those seals and the treats they encounter with the shifts in climate gives a good feeling.

The harp seal pups are called white coats the first 12-14 days of their lives: the milk of the mothers contains of 60% fat and the pups gain 2.2 kg in weight a day. They have to since the mothers will only feed them the first 2 weeks. After that they are on their own and the fat stock is needed since they’ll be on the ice until they can swim and hunt on their own, which can take until they are 7 to 8 weeks old. In the meanwhile they start molting and become more grey, which is called the beater stage.

This is the stage they are the most vulnerable: they have no protection from their mothers, nor from Canadian law. After shedding their white coats they can be culled by the hunters. A slaughter it is: the pups are too young to flee and wait their fate. Every year Canada set a quota to be culled which might threaten the future populations: in years with good strong ice, the mortality between harp seal pups is already 30%, in years with bad ice the mortality is 100%. A cull can be missed.